Cutting edge sound designers Ivo Ivanov and Alex Retsis, recently came together to create BYTE RIOT, a chiptune-inspired MASCHINE expansion.
Ivanov, founder of leading audio effects and software manufacturer Glitchmachines, garnered his reputation over time through his custom circuit-bent units and producing abstract sounds. Label owner, and electronic musician Retsis is also well known through his compositions and sounds for TV, film, theater, and ads. In an interview with Native Instruments, the two designers share their approach to conceptualizing and creating their kits.
Can you explain how you went about creating the more chip bendy sounds?
Alex Retsis: When it comes to creating chiptune sounds, you have to channel your imagination through a linear approach, since everything in early game consoles was done using text input modes and custom programming tools.
I drew a lot of inspiration for these sounds from early computer and video game music, and modern chipmusic artists. Each piece of hardware has its own secrets and exploits, so it was interesting to submerge myself in the technology in order to discover its potential. The Nintendo Game Boy’s sound chip is a great example: each Game Boy model has its own distinguishable sonic characteristics. For example, the very first Game Boy packs a powerful and punchy pulse waveform channel, making it more preferable for kick or bass sounds, while the Game Boy Color sounds much more subtle by comparison.
Ivo Ivanov: Knowing Alex would cover the game-centric sources, I focused my attention toward circuit-bent and modular sounds. I have a long history as a circuit bender, and I knew I wanted to put together a really diverse selection of circuit-bent sounds.
I set out to gather as many unique hardware sound sources as possible, and I even built a few custom units specifically for this project. I also have a staggering collection of recordings that I’ve grown over many years, from which I was able to gather new material.
On the modular side, I acquired numerous oscillators, which I then meticulously sampled. Ultimately, every single one of my sounds was sampled from actual hardware devices and later painstakingly edited in order to achieve the final palette of sounds.
What was the process you used when recording the video game sounds?
II: Alex was in charge of recording all of the video game sounds for this expansion. That said, most of my sounds also fit into this aesthetic, and I paid special attention to following the theme very closely. For example, I acquired an Oscillographic Block module, which has a genuine SN76489 chip inside. This chip is nothing short of legendary, as it was responsible for generating some of the most memorable classic video game sounds inside consoles like the Sega Master System, the Sega Game Gear, and the ColecoVision. I also recorded other hardware modules such as the Sid Guts Deluxe, which houses an authentic Commodore 64 6581 SID chip, and the Akemie’s Taiko and Akemie’s Castle hardware modules, which house authentic YMF262 (OPL3) chips that were used in numerous video games and popularized in synths like the DX100, DX21, and TX81Z.
AR: I tried to gather a broad variety of physical and virtual sound sources to capture each sound chip’s unique character. Another technique I employed was to resample high-resolution sounds through vintage audio chips to capture the distinctive aliasing and sonic nuances of each sampling engine.
My main concern was to eliminate any background noise coming from the video game consoles, which were not initially designed to be recorded at high resolutions (or at all). I overcame this obstacle by either applying modifications to the actual electrical circuits of the game consoles’ audio outputs, or by post-processing the recordings in the computer. The raw recordings were made using the SSL Nucleus A/D converters running at 192kHz, and were later downsampled to 44.1kHz.
How did you set up your sessions?
II: I set up a new session in my DAW for every source, and then proceeded to record lengthy passes while manipulating every possible parameter of the devices in real time. The resulting recordings made for a very broad soundscape, which I then edited linearly.
I used a Lynx Hilo Reference Converter System for all of the recording and essentially minimized the signal path as much as possible by recording directly from the devices, through the audio converter, and into my DAW. I then used the TwistedWave audio editor for Mac to edit all of the recordings. In every case, I left the resulting edits completely raw, meaning that there was no further post-processing applied, in order to retain all of the minute nuances and characteristics of the sounds.
AR: My approach was essentially chronological. To be more specific, I started out with the iconic Atari 2600. I captured every sound I found to be interesting, and after I had accumulated lot of content I was happy with, I moved to the next device. It was kind of a trip into the history and evolution of video game audio and I genuinely enjoyed the process, both in a technical and nostalgic sense!
What were the key factors you considered when choosing which machines to use?
II: First and foremost, my focus was on variety. It’s actually quite difficult to design such a large variety of sounds stemming from seemingly technically limited sources. Fortunately, I already had a very clear understanding of what I needed to do: the key is to record as much as humanly possible, and then listen to everything in a linear way in order to edit out any samples of potential interest.
AR: My main concern was in capturing the defining personalities of these iconic game machines that left their mark in the passage of time and to get the most out of their sound chips by thoroughly exploring their capabilities. I also focused on creating a good balance of retro and modern sounds that could be useful in a wide variety of electronic music genres and production situations.
How did you go about making these kits work with MASCHINE?
AR: I am fortunate enough to have worked on MASCHINE kits several times in the past. While the process was familiar to me, it is always fun and challenging to conform my ideas to a new context. It’s definitely different than making a regular sample pack, because in MASCHINE you have a more immediate connection with the creative applications a kit can have. A sample pack, on the other hand, is more open-ended in the sense that you cannot predict how the end user will incorporate the sounds. This drives your creativity and inspiration to a more immediate and tangible level.
I spent many hours playing with my kits before sequencing them on MASCHINE. This is an integral component of my design workflow because it allows me to detach myself from the technical side of the process and put myself in the musician’s shoes, in order to experience my kits in a musical context.
What was the most exciting thing about creating this expansion?
II: I was actually initially drawn to sound design because of the peculiar sounds that emanated from my very first video game consoles as a child. We owned a Vectrex and an Atari 2600, and I fondly recall being absolutely fascinated by the sounds these devices were capable of making.
It was also really exciting to work with Alex because we share a passion for similar musical styles and come from similar musical backgrounds. There is something rare and special about having a creative connection with a team member whom you can combine forces with in order to create something even bigger than you would on your own. To have the opportunity to work on this project feels like the culmination of some of my most prominent musical aspirations.
AR: I have been in love with video game sounds since my early childhood. When I was 10 years old, I used to record video game music with my portable cassette tape recorder, and I spent countless hours listening to the recordings everywhere I went. Sharing my personal excitement about a whole culture within this type of project was a very exhilarating experience for me. This sense of excitement is only heightened by the anticipation I feel to hear what artists who buy the expansion will come up with.
What is your favorite thing in this expansion?
AR: I love everything we did for this expansion! All the 8-bit drum sounds, for example, awaken my inner nerd every time I listen to them.
Another personal favorite is the Arpeggio Chord Kit, which consists of samples from a real Commodore 64 home computer, showcasing 16 progressions of the most fundamental chord variations. I crave for a utility kit like this every time I compose sample-based music, so I’m really happy I finally got to make one.
II: My favorite thing is seeing all of the sounds come together in the end. While Alex and I took different paths, and our approach and focus were different, it was extremely satisfying to hear how well our sounds ultimately work together. Having a common understanding and expertise of the project’s aesthetic was instrumental in allowing us to concentrate on our own contributions to the expansion, meanwhile knowing that we would ultimately meet in the middle with material that not only closely follows the theme, but also transcends the heritage of the sounds and reimagines them for past and future generations alike.